Volume 74, Number 38 | Jan. 26 - Feb. 1, 2005

TALKING POINT

Gansevoort Park with trucks? Use rail for recyclables

By Bill Hine

A bicyclist on the Hudson River Park bikeway passes Gansevoort Peninsula at the spot where garbage trucks turn onto the peninsula from the West Side Highway.
Evidence is piling up, showing that operating a marine transfer station at the Gansevoort Peninsula would create unacceptable problems. The latest came at a Jan. 3 Community Board 2 public hearing, directly from officials who are planning the project.

How could Sanitation trucks, carrying recyclable material on a curve in 35-mile-per-hour traffic, abruptly slow down for a right-hand turn to enter the peninsula? The answer — planners are aware of the problem but have no solution. Various ideas have been considered, but nothing worked.

Besides that, the bikeway is only 5 feet from the highway. If a bike is in the way, a truck could not enter. But if the truck stopped at the curve in heavy traffic, there could be a pileup. And 10 feet beyond the bikeway is a blind spot where joggers could suddenly run in front of the truck.
So why is a place with hazardous access being considered for a marine-transfer station? The answer given at the hearing is that the Gansevoort Peninsula previously had an M.T.S., and that makes approval of a new one easier.

The ease of site approval cannot be allowed to override more critical issues, especially when public safety is at risk. This suggests that changes may be required in the approval process.
Meanwhile, a closer look shows more problems, while raising questions about the overall program.

Background

Gansevoort Peninsula is a vivid example of how the waterfront evolved. In 1837 a decision was made to extend landfill development into the Hudson River to a 13th Ave. But by the end of that century, ships were longer and that required longer piers, at a time when shipping was the city’s vital activity. To protect access for maritime use, the federal government refused to allow piers to extend beyond the pierhead line. And with resistance from shipping lines to having an isolated facility further uptown, the city condemned many blocks of property, excavated the earlier landfill, and returned the shoreline to where it had been during earlier generations. The West Washington Market, located north of Gansevoort St., was left as an exception and this became a peninsula.

By the 1950s, the Miller Highway viaduct moved express traffic above the corridor to provide greater access and increase space at the waterfront. Buildings of the West Washington Market were then demolished and replaced with an incinerator and an M.T.S. Sanitation trucks had blocks of space near the shoreline to wait in line, enter from the southern edge of the peninsula, drive up a ramp along the remains of 13th Ave., access the M.T.S., and exit from the peninsula’s northern edge.

The site today

Because an M.T.S. operated there before, various organizations have apparently decided that building another one at the peninsula would be no problem. But instead of express traffic using an elevated highway, vehicles now rush by, hopefully not exceeding the speed limit at ground level. There is no turning area to enter the peninsula, and no space to build one. A bikeway and pedestrian esplanade are squeezed against the remains of historic Cunard Piers. To accommodate Meat Market trucks to the east, the highway was moved to the west, with a curve where traffic approaches the peninsula. Waterfront space where Sanitation trucks once lined up is now a park.

Without adequate space, the truck would need to inappropriately stop on the bikeway and narrow space beyond, to see the esplanade to the north. Otherwise, there could be hazards with pedestrians and joggers.

There are still two vehicular entrances to Gansevoort, but the one at the southern edge is to be removed to accommodate the park. And adding a signal light to stop highway traffic at a curve would be asking for the worst.

Keep on truckin’?

When leaving the peninsula, the ritual is basically reversed. There would be space to stop and check the esplanade. Then stop on the esplanade and space next to the bikeway to avoid bikers from the north. The driver could then inch forward and stop again on the bikeway for an adequate view of highway traffic, before gunning the engine to enter any opening between fast-moving vehicles. Truck drivers now using this entrance zip across the bikeway and esplanade without time to consider unseen hazards. This would also be expected when the park is finished, with considerably greater park activity. The number of consecutive stops and care to avoid problems is far beyond practical use, especially for 56,000 trucks coming and going each year. On average, trucks could arrive and leave every 1.7 minutes. In reality, they would arrive in bunches, perhaps large enough to create their own line of traffic, and the number could increase to 220,000 trucks with additional shifts. The M.T.S. is to operate day and night, in all types of weather, at times when drivers will be facing a blinding sun.

Ideas that have been suggested to reduce traffic hazards include elevating the bikeway on a ramp a block to a block-and-a-half long in this section. The ramp would produce its own hazards during wet and icy weather, and could be a turnoff for all but teenagers who are bike enthusiasts.

Trucks leaving the peninsula would need to continue to the first left turn, about a mile south at Clarkson St. If trucks left the highway at Pier 40 to turn around, it would impact that portion of the park. Canal St. is the next left turn, but trucks could get stuck there in Holland Tunnel traffic.

Amenities to sneeze at

Park plans previously considered for the peninsula would demolish the existing ramp and shed of the abandoned M.T.S. But the pier substructure that remains could provide docking for historic vessels, or perhaps be covered with platform and linked by a bridge to the peninsula.
The proposed M.T.S. would be moved to the north and be large enough to contain waiting trucks. Rather than an amenity, it would be far more obtrusive than in other plans.
A suggested facility that would explain recycling to school groups has been questioned because only a single activity relevant to the process could be seen at this M.T.S.
Besides these items, suggestions have been made that accepting the M.T.S. could help pay for the park, or make the peninsula available to the public at an earlier date. However, the planning and construction schedule would require at least seven years. A more convincing argument would be not compromising the incredible potential of the Gansevoort Peninsula. The historic setting was a focus of the most active port on earth, and the adjacent bulkhead is a landmark. This place would become the highlight of the Hudson River Park. Interim, low-cost features could provide access much sooner than seven years.

‘Trash and the City’

“Trash and the City,” a 2004 publication of Environmental Defense, states that trucks travel 7.8 million miles each year to move Manhattan’s garbage, a distance comparable to 312 trips around the earth. (The distance also equals more than 30 trips to the moon, or a trip to the sun in less than 12 years.) The publication goes on the state: “In addition to garbage, each of those trucks carries huge health and economic costs: They worsen traffic congestion, add to noise and increase air pollution, exacerbating the city’s already severe asthma problem.”

Now consider what mileage would be required to collect and deliver all of the city’s recyclable material, with the trucks limited to a single delivery site in each borough. As currently proposed, trucks would be required to go from far corners of a borough to a distant shoreline for delivering recyclables.

The audience at the Jan. 3 public hearing was told that a site in Upper Manhattan has been considered for using a rail-transfer facility (instead of an M.T.S). But the potential for a single rail pickup within a system designed for barges would produce complications instead of benefits.
Cities in Europe use subway lines to move more than people. Various materials can be moved in special cars, operated during off-peak hours.

Along most of Manhattan’s length, a West Side rail line operates with few trains. Rail service could continue through the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. Instead of elaborate architecture for conspicuous waterfront sites, out-of-the-way rail sidings could be used. And without limiting options to where an M.T.S. once operated, more than a single site could be used for collecting recyclables.

But with the proposed plan, Manhattan truck crews would collect material at Inwood, continue past various places where rail transfers could be established, struggle through Midtown traffic, and wind up at an M.T.S. in Lower Manhattan.

On Staten Island, rail lines could provide a range of options where trucks could be unloaded, extending from St. George to Tottenville at the island’s southwest corner, and to a New Jersey crossing at the northwest corner. Again, existing plans would have a single M.T.S. where material would be barged to Brooklyn to be sorted. Then what? Use costly ocean-going tugs and barges for delivering material to whatever market for recyclables that would have access for barges? Why not capitalize on direct rail connections from Staten Island to a much wider range of inland and coastal markets? If complications develop with any aspect of a rail concept, variations could be explored.

The opportunity

Even though plans for an M.T.S. at Gansevoort have unacceptable problems, strong support continues for an effective recycling program. The public meetings have been very productive. Hopefully this dialogue will continue.

Other places can be found for an M.T.S. with safe access. However, with only five places in the city for trucks to deliver recyclables, the program would still produce far more truck miles than necessary.

That problem could also be addressed with a recycling program planned to take advantage of the city’s rail network. A comprehensive study could evaluate a range of options and potential savings with a rail-based alternative. Such a study is critical if New York’s recycling program is to meet environmental needs.

Hine was a member of former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger’s Transportation Advisory Board and Waterfront Task Force.

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